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Brazzil - Politics - May 2004

Would Lula Oust Lula from Brazil?

The imbroglio about the expulsion of the New York Times reporter
from Brazil ended worse than it started, with a shameless farce.
Due to his doggedness, Lula could not step back. To save face,
he decided to see a retraction where there was none. The good
thing: a petty tyrant showed his claws for the whole world to see.

Janer Cristaldo


Picture American general Ulysses Grant, the Civil War hero who won many battles, is known to have been an inveterate drunk. When President Lincoln was informed of his devotion to whiskey, he didn't hesitate: "Tell me what is Grant's favorite whiskey, so I can recommend it to the other generals". History honored he boozer yet competent general with an actual brand of scotch.

What a man drinks is not important. His deeds are important. Drinking is part of the idiosyncrasies of ordinary people, just like their sex lives. A wave of Puritanism seems to be taking over the minds of the American people and particularly the American press. Journalists have been meddling with the personal lives of their leaders for several decades now.

The accusation of Larry Rohter, correspondent of the New York Times in Brazil, concerning the level of ethylic consumption of the Brazilian President comes from the same kind of journalism that saw in Bill Clinton's sexual practices reasons for an impeachment. Just between us, our presidents always drank and fornicated plenty, and no citizen ever lost any sleep over such peculiarities.

This wave of Puritanism and invasion of privacy is recent and didn't always exist. John Kennedy's sexual appetite was the subject of folklore and nobody condemned him during his era. On the contrary, it was part of his charm. Besides advancing on secretaries, interns and even visitors to the White House, he also had some professionals on shift for moments of urgency.

Here in Brazil, everyone knew about João Goulart's taste for prostitutes and Jânio Quadros' love of scotch. We also had a Minister, economist Mário Simonsen, whose appreciation for good liquor was as notorious as his knowledge about opera.

These were extremely personal habits and they were nobody's business. Still, the press was prodigal in jokes concerning both Jânio and Simonsen and neither ever thought of suing or ousting any journalists from the country.

Boris Ieltsin became famous in the international press as an inveterate alcoholic but never expelled any journalist from Moscow on that account. There are those who actually believe that the hard-kicked cannonball that hit the Duma, making the old guard of the soviet Communist Party give up on any whim of resistance, would not have occurred at all if it were not for the high vodka content in Ieltsin's veins.

At the end of his administration, Fernando Henrique Cardoso was accused of having a child with a journalist from the Globo network, who supposedly lived abroad. Caros Amigos, the magazine that made the accusation sent a correspondent to Barcelona to unveil the mystery.

The journalist brought back an irrefutable proof of the child's existence: when he called the alleged mother on the phone, he heard a child's voice in the background. What the president was trying to hide was now proved to be true.

The proof was the child's voice in the background, heard over the telephone line. To the disappointment of the astute journalist, Fernando Henrique did what he should have done: nothing. The accusation, with or without grounds, fell empty.

Having been touched on a spot that seems to leave him very sore, Lula gave international repercussion to something that would have been left unnoticed if it weren't for his besta fera (ferocious beast) type reaction.

Dictatorship Law

Digging out a decrepit law from the times of the dictatorship against which he says he fought, he expels the correspondent from the country. Ironically, he was using the same law that the military used to expel from Brazil, back in 1980, an Italian apparatchik, Father Vito Miracapillo.

If his reputation as an obstinate drunkard was until now restricted to Brazil, now Lula has managed to release it urbi et orbi. The story appeared in approximately forty newspapers in the West and also in China and in the Arab world. Not even celebrated adman Duda Mendonça could have orchestrated such a performance.

Domestically, the scandal came in good time. In the midst of the total state of misadministration of this administration, the press suspended for a week all their talk about the total disregard of the sem-terra and sem-teto (landless and homeless) for the law, about the Bantustans in Rio where the State no longer rules, about the Indians who massacred tens of whites and remain unpunished, and about the ridiculous increase in the minimum salary, in order to get busy with presidential drinking binges.

The first line of defense from His Highness, who was hurting, was to identify himself before the nation. According to his crude vision of the world, the journalist had offended not the President but the country. Le Brésil c'est moi—was what he said, in other words.

Well, the country of cachaça would never take such a statement as an offense. And here is the first mistake from the American journalist, to judge that this country cares about the ethylic habits of the President.

These habits have been known from his prior attempts to hold office, before running for President. His election is definitive proof that Brazilians never cared about this. Another mistake was to think that the gaffes committed by Lula are the effects of alcohol.

Lula should be thankful for such a statement because it only brings him favor. For the first time, his folly is attributed not to his atrocious unenlightment but to an occasional factor—his ethylic exhalations.

Equally illogical is the insinuation by Rohter that the President's predilection for hard liquor may be affecting his performance at the helm of the country. There is nothing even resembling the erratic steps of a drunk in the Lula administration.

In order to ensure the perpetuity of the petista Nomenklatura, it has actually advanced with considerable logic and coherence into the pockets of taxpayers. First it cheated pension holders out of 30 percent of their pensions, now it is trying to cheat another 11 percent out of retirees in general and it's already thinking about increasing the income tax to 35 percent.

This is not a drunken spree. Instead, it shows crystal clear determination from people who want to stay in power at the cost of the impoverishment of the middle class. What we face is not a bateau ivre floating adrift, but a ship with a very precise route.

History of Drinking

Lula says he was particularly offended with the reference made by Rohter to the ethylic problems of his father. Now he wishes he had not said a word. Last Sunday both Veja and Folha de S. Paulo published demolishing stories that extend the alcoholism of the Silvas two generations back.

"My father always drank—says one of the President's brothers. He drank pinga. Then he changed to cognac, which was better. Then he changed to beer, which was better. If he had the chance to drink fifty pingas, he would. He had no control. He used to get home very high."

About his maternal grandmother, Lula himself has said: "My granny, poor thing, drank a great deal", he regrets. "How many times my brothers had to go get her, sleeping in the bushes, on the road, on the edge of the pavement. [...] She drank a lot, a lot".

These statements are in the book Lula—O Filho do Brasil (Lula—Brazil's Son), by journalist Denise Paraná, which was put together based on testimonies from Lula and his family members.

The press was also showered with emphatic declarations of love by Lula to alcohol. There are those saying that Rohter's report is inconsistent as far as the President's alcoholism is concerned.

The fact is that Rohter did not research deeply enough. Among the tens of statements published, let me pull out just two. In 1978, asked by underground newspaper Pasquim about his recent preference for scotch, he said:

"Listen, if you had a bottle of 51 cachaça right here, I would drink two times the amount of this whiskey. I drink whatever is available, you know... but in my office at the union, we open bottles of 51."

And this other one, definitive, extracted from the testimony given to Denise Paraná:

"Here's the truth: politics is like a good cachaça. You take the first shot and that's it, you can't stop, only when the bottle is empty."

A conclusive confession from a rough drinker, able to gulp down a whole bottle of cachaça. Will Lula oust Lula from Brazil?

The whole imbroglio ended worse than it started, with a shameless farce. For reasons of a legal nature, the government was unable to stand by its decision. Due to his own foolish doggedness, Lula could not step back.

To save face, he decided to interpret as a retraction from the NYT correspondent a letter in which the journalist retracts nothing whatsoever. His newspaper even reiterated that they were not apologizing or retracting.

The episode had a healthy overtone. The project of a petty tyrant who had been hiding under a democrat's mantle showed his claws for the whole world to see.

Janer Cristaldo—he holds a PhD from University of Paris, Sorbonne—is an author, translator, lawyer, philosopher and journalist and lives in São Paulo. His e-mail address is cristal@baguete.com.br.
Translated by Tereza Braga. Braga is a freelance Portuguese translator and interpreter based in Dallas. She is an accredited member of the American Translators Association. Contact: terezab@sbcglobal.net.

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